Sweet 15

The girl's name was Karen--I never did catch her last name--and she was resplendent in a white floor-length gown and veil. It was her quinceanera, the coming-of-age ceremony marking a Latina's transition from childhood to adulthood, and Karen clearly was enjoying her night in the spotlight. She could hardly turn around without having someone reach out to touch her, buss her on the cheek or hand her a brightly wrapped gift.

Then, suddenly, the power went off. The ice cream began to melt, the drinks got warm and the sound system fell silent. As the guests quietly filed out into the dark, Karen's night to remember had become one she'd never forget.

Power outages aren't addressed in Michele Salcedo's new book "Quinceanera: The Essential Guide to Planning the Perfect Sweet Fifteen Celebration," but just about everything else that could affect the most important event in a young Latina's life is. The 239-page manual (Henry Holt) explains both the significance and the symbolism of the centuries-old quinceanera and offers detailed advice on such matters as hiring a photographer, choosing a dress, picking the music and writing an appropriate invitation.

Scholars trace the tradition to ancient civilizations, and in modern times it has grown into an all-day cultural, religious and social event. Long celebrated in Latin America, where it has inspired countless songs and a popular Mexican soap opera, the quinceanera is becoming increasingly popular among the 25 million Latinos living in the United States, a fact that has led to numerous business opportunities for entrepreneurs and a mass of confusion for overwhelmed parents.

Which is where Salcedo, an award-winning journalist for Newsday, comes in. She peppers her advice with anecdotes from former quinceaneras and notes on nuances the event has developed in countries such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In Cuba, for example, quinceaneras have traditionally been simple affairs held mostly in a girl's home, while in Nicaragua, the celebration can last all day and includes a procession to the church, a special dinner of arroz a la Valenciana (rice with chicken) and a party that can last well into the next morning.

A second-generation Mexican American, Salcedo celebrated her quinceanera in a nontraditional way, skipping an elaborate party in favor of a visit with her grandparents in Mexico City.

"It was a marvelous awakening in many ways," she said. "It was a wonderful chance to meet extended family, people I had only heard my mother tell stories of.

"I think it's important to recognize [the event], but it can be done in different ways. That's sort of the point of the book. I think it's important for the family to realize that their girl is no longer a little girl. No matter how a family chooses to recognize the quinceanera or this passage, the important thing is that it's acknowledged and that the family welcomes the change in her."

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